Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
April 18, 1996

Society suspicious of female school administrators

by Steve Sullivan
While women traditionally have dominated the teaching field, very few have served as school superintendents.

Jackie Blount's investigation into this aspect of the education profession offers a historically significant, often troubling, look at how women's roles in teaching and school administration have been dramatically buffeted by social change brought on by such things as women's suffrage, rising divorce rates and fear of homosexuality.

A chapter from a book Blount is writing on the history of women and leadership in public schools will be published in a special summer issue of the Harvard Educational Review on lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people in education.

Through meticulous review of national education administration registries, Blount found that women accounted for approximately 10 percent of all school superintendents from 1910 to 1950. Today, they account for only 5 percent.

To understand how this happened, Blount went back to the turn of the century. In 1900, women accounted for 70 percent of all public school teachers, more than 95 percent of whom were single, divorced or widowed.

In the 1920s and 1930s, hiring single women teachers was policy in many school systems. Some even required instant resignations from women teachers who married.

There were several reasons for this, Blount explained. Two- income households were not a popular concept, especially during the Depression. Although teaching was considered a good training ground for marriage and motherhood, married women were viewed as incapable of fairly and equally serving two masters -- family and school.

The "single only" policy also applied to women school administrators during the early decades of the century. The role of school administrator was defined as masculine, Blount said, which meant that women pursuing the position risked being labeled "mannish" or "deviant."

"The job of superintendent was structured to fit men's sense of masculinity, to enhance their image as part of the community and as unbullied by women, who dominated the teaching field," Blount said.

"The superintendent could have been at the school, working with teachers on curriculum issues. Instead, the superintendent usually deals with bean counting and budget issues in an office in the middle of male-owned businesses and power structures," she said.

Unlike women, male teachers and school administrators were expected to be married to indicate strength of character and masculinity, Blount said.

"Periodic surveys have shown that virtually all of the men who have served as school superintendents during this century have been married," Blount said.

In 1940, nearly 70 percent of all women teachers were single. However, the requirement that women teachers be single began to disappear in the '40s and by 1960, that statistic had dropped to 30 percent. One obvious reason was World War II, which created more job opportunities for single women outside of education.

However, Blount said there was a darker side to the increase in married teachers. Declining birth rates, soaring divorce rates and the success of the women's suffrage movement brought a backlash against independent single women. They were seen as threats to the masculinity of male colleagues and students, she said.

Some Americans perceived that single women teachers were abandoning their responsibility to marry, bear children and help continue the white race, she said. A more damaging perception, however, was that single women teachers carried the threat of lesbianism into public schools. (This perception was heightened in the 1950s when Alfred Kinsey's studies of male and female sexual behavior showed that more people than expected had had a homosexual experience.)

The fear of being labeled homosexual led many women to pursue "gender appropriate work," such as classroom teaching, Blount said. Women who sought administrative positions had to contend with perceptions that their ambitions were masculine, aggressive and inappropriate.

Fear of crossing gender lines, single status or concerns about disrupting traditional home life led many women to abandon school administration aspirations. From 1950 to 1970, the percentage of women superintendents nationally dropped from 9 percent to slightly more than 3 percent.

"School consolidations and other issues affected this decline," Blount said. "But the profound gender role polarization that occurred during the years (1950s, 1960s), when the perceived menace of homosexuals pervaded every aspect of education, undoubtedly influenced the decline of the woman superintendent."

Blount suggests that the position of superintendent be restructured to make it "more welcoming to persons of either gender and more publicly accountable." Electing superintendents rather than appointing them through school boards is one option she suggests. (Blount notes that when superintendents are elected, women tend to have greater success.) Ultimately, however, Blount advocates a greater acceptance of all people -- married and single, male and female, straight and gay -- in the field of education.

"Short of the family, the role modeling that young people see in schools is going to provide the example about how society should be structured," Blount said. "As long as schools are structured in a sex-segregated, hierarchical system, it is going to be a tacit and powerful lesson that all young people are going to carry away about their expectations for men and women."

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URL: 4/18/96